jueves, 15 de julio de 2010

Vertical Turkey: Sümela Monastery

Browsing photos in Google Earth, I’ve discovered a strange architectural jewel in Turkey, far away of the beaten path of Istanbul. It’s called Sümela Manastir (monastery), and he looks like a kind of Jordanian Petra, or maybe, due to the dizziness caused by its verticality, to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.

(click to enlarge)

Some references to find it: It’s located in the NE corner of the Anatolian Peninsula, on the slopes of the Zigana Mountains in the Pontic Alps, 200 km. west of Batumi, Georgia, and 50 km. south of the legendary Trabzon (see “Empire of Trebizond”), which in turn lies in the southeastern coast of the Black Sea. You might remember that ancient greeks called it the “Ponto Euxino”, from which derives the “Pontic Alps” in which such jewel is located.

As the tale go, two hermites, Barnabus and Sophronius, encountered here an icon of a caucasian Black Madonna, from which probably might derive the name Sümela (melas = “dark” or “black” in pontic greek). Be it true or not, Sümela Monastery was constructed in this very cliff of 1200 mts. above the sea level and 300 to the valley, in the year 386 AD during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I.

Since then, many others rulers crafted this valuable archeological site. You can find more info here and here.

Inside views

...More photos

sábado, 19 de junio de 2010

Traditional Kavkaz Lezginka

A dagestani version of Lezginka
See the women wearing their arkhaligs and
men with their short sleeved Chokhas
headdressed with white Kubankas (or "Papakhi")

Lezginka or Lezghinka (Lezghi: Лезги къуьл; Azerbaijani: Ləzgi) is a national dance of Lezghins popular among many people in the Caucasus Mountains. It derives its names from the Lezgin people; nevertheless, Lezghins, Circassians, Karachays, Balkars, Abkhazians, Kabardins, Turks, Chechens, Mountain Jews, Ingush, Ossetians, Ingilos, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Georgians, the Russian Kuban and Terek Cossacks and the various ethnicities of Dagestan have their own versions.

Lezginka can be a solo, couple or group dance. Men and women are dressed in traditional costumes (Chokha); men wear a sword adorned on their side and women in long, flowing dresses. The man, imitating an eagle, dances in quick, concise steps; falling to his knees and leaping up quickly. The woman dances quietly, taking light, small steps - giving the appearance of her floating around the floor. When the dance is performed in pairs, the couples do not touch; the woman acknowledges the man, and dances discreetly about him.

miércoles, 24 de marzo de 2010

Ukrainian Folk: Bandura

Anatomy of the Bandura

Also called "Kobza", is a stringed instrument of the psaltery family considered the national musical instrument of Ukraine. It is used chiefly to accompany folk music. The bandura has an oval wooden body; a short, fretless neck attached to the soundboard in an off-centre position; 4 to 8 bass strings running from the neck of the instrument to the body; and 30 or more (sometimes 60) chromatically tuned treble strings stretched over the soundboard. The instrument is played in a seated position, the body of the instrument held on the lap in a nearly vertical position parallel to the torso. The bass strings are plucked with the fingers of the left hand and the treble strings strummed with a plectrum held in the right hand.

A precursor to the bandura was the kobza, a three- to eight-string instrument mentioned in Greek literature of the 6th century. During the Middle Ages it was prominent in eastern European courts, where it was used to accompany singing and dancing. Additional strings were added to the kobza in the 14th or 15th century, when it became known as the bandura, but the term kobza remains a synonym for bandura. By the 15th century the bandura had been adopted by kobzari, professional musicians—many of whom were blind—who used the instrument as an accompaniment for epic ballads (dumy) that recounted the exploits of the Ukrainian Cossacks. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries kobzari were persecuted for expressing nationalistic sentiments in their music, and in the 1930s Stalin ordered the execution of a number of them.

Despite Soviet censure, interest in the bandura increased in the 20th century. Many bandura ensembles and schools were formed, and the instrument, which was by tradition tuned diatonically, now has chromatically tuned versions. At the turn of the 21st century, bandura ensembles continued to be popular in Ukraine.

A little girl playing "Vesnyanka" with the bandura

More Bandura Videos...

domingo, 21 de febrero de 2010

Terrorism: the most meaningless and manipulated word

(updated below)

Yesterday, Joseph Stack deliberately flew an airplane into a building housing IRS offices in Austin, Texas, in order to advance the political grievances he outlined in a perfectly cogent suicide-manifesto.  Stack's worldview contained elements of the tea party's anti-government anger along with substantial populist complaints generally associated with "the Left" (rage over bailouts, the suffering of America's poor, and the pilfering of the middle class by a corrupt economic elite and their government-servants).  All of that was accompanied by an argument as to why violence was justified (indeed necessary) to protest those injustices:

I remember reading about the stock market crash before the "great" depression and how there were wealthy bankers and businessmen jumping out of windows when they realized they screwed up and lost everything. Isn't it ironic how far we've come in 60 years in this country that they now know how to fix that little economic problem; they just steal from the middle class (who doesn't have any say in it, elections are a joke) to cover their asses and it's "business-as-usual" . . . . Sadly, though I spent my entire life trying to believe it wasn’t so, but violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.

Despite all that, The New York Times' Brian Stelter documents the deep reluctance of cable news chatterers and government officials to label the incident an act of "terrorism," even though -- as Dave Neiwert ably documents -- it perfectly fits, indeed is a classic illustration of, every official definition of that term.

The issue isn't whether Stack's grievances are real or his responses just; it is that the act unquestionably comports with the official definition.  But as NBC's Pete Williams said of the official insistence that this was not an act of Terrorism:  there are "a couple of reasons to say that . . . One is he’s an American citizen."

Fox News' Megan Kelley asked Catherine Herridge about these denials:  "I take it that they mean terrorism in the larger sense that most of us are used to?," to which Herridge replied: "they mean terrorism in that capital T way."

All of this underscores, yet again, that Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon. 

The term now has virtually nothing to do with the act itself and everything to do with the identity of the actor, especially his or her religious identity.  It has really come to mean:  "a Muslim who fights against or even expresses hostility towards the United States, Israel and their allies."  That's why all of this confusion and doubt arose yesterday over whether a person who perpetrated a classic act of Terrorism should, in fact, be called a Terrorist:  he's not a Muslim and isn't acting on behalf of standard Muslim grievances against the U.S. or Israel, and thus does not fit the "definition."

One might concede that perhaps there's some technical sense in which term might apply to Stack, but as Fox News emphasized:  it's not "terrorism in the larger sense that most of us are used to . . . terrorism in that capital T way."  We all know who commits terrorism in "that capital T way," and it's not people named Joseph Stack.

Contrast the collective hesitance to call Stack a Terrorist with the extremely dubious circumstances under which that term is reflexively applied to Muslims.  If a Muslim attacks a military base preparing to deploy soldiers to a war zone, that person is a Terrorist.  If an American Muslim argues that violence against the U.S. (particularly when aimed at military targets) is justified due to American violence aimed at the Muslim world, that person is a Terrorist who deserves assassination.  And if the U.S. military invades a Muslim country, Muslims who live in the invaded and occupied country and who fight back against the invading American army -- by attacking nothing but military targets -- are also Terrorists.  Indeed, large numbers of detainees at Guantanamo were accused of being Terrorists for nothing more than attacking members of an invading foreign army in their country, including 14-year-old Mohamed Jawad, who spent many years in Guantanamo, accused (almost certainly falsely) of throwing a grenade at two American troops in Afghanistan who were part of an invading force in that country.  Obviously, plots targeting civilians for death -- the 9/11 attacks and attempts to blow up civilian aircraft -- are pure terrorism, but a huge portion of the acts committed by Muslims that receive that label are not.

In sum:  a Muslim who attacks military targets, including in war zones or even in their own countries that have been invaded by a foreign army, are Terrorists.  A non-Muslim who flies an airplane into a government building in pursuit of a political agenda is not, or at least is not a Real Terrorist with a capital T -- not the kind who should be tortured and thrown in a cage with no charges and assassinated with no due process.  Nor are Christians who stand outside abortion clinics and murder doctors and clinic workers.  Nor are acts undertaken by us or our favored allies designed to kill large numbers of civilians or which will recklessly cause such deaths as a means of terrorizing the population into desired behavioral change -- the Glorious Shock and Awe campaign and the pummeling of Gaza.  Except as a means for demonizing Muslims, the word is used so inconsistently and manipulatively that it is impoverished of any discernible meaning.

All of this would be an interesting though not terribly important semantic matter if not for the fact that the term Terrorist plays a central role in our political debates.  It is the all-justifying term for anything the U.S. Government does.  Invasions, torture, due-process-free detentions, military commissions, drone attacks, warrantless surveillance, obsessive secrecy, and even assassinations of American citizens are all justified by the claim that it's only being done to "Terrorists," who, by definition, have no rights.  Even worse, one becomes a "Terrorist" not through any judicial adjudication or other formal process, but solely by virtue of the untested, unchecked say-so of the Executive Branch.  The President decrees someone to be a Terrorist and that's the end of that:   uncritical followers of both political parties immediately justify anything done to the person on the ground that he's a Terrorist (by which they actually mean:  he's been accused of being one, though that distinction -- between presidential accusations and proof -- is not one they recognize).

If we're really going to vest virtually unlimited power in the Government to do anything it wants to people they call "Terrorists," we ought at least to have a common understanding of what the term means.  But there is none.  It's just become a malleable, all-justifying term to allow the U.S. Government carte blanche to do whatever it wants to Muslims it does not like or who do not like it (i.e., The Terrorists).  It's really more of a hypnotic mantra than an actual word:  its mere utterance causes the nation blindly to cheer on whatever is done against the Muslims who are so labeled.

UPDATE:  I want to add one point:  the immediate official and media reaction was to avoid, even deny, the term "terrorist" because the perpetrator of the violence wasn't Muslim.  But if Stack's manifesto begins to attract serious attention, I think it's likely the term Terrorist will be decisively applied to him in order to discredit what he wrote.  His message is a sharply anti-establishment and populist grievance of the type that transcends ideological and partisan divisions -- the complaints which Stack passionately voices are found as common threads in the tea party movement and among citizens on both the Left and on the Right -- and thus tend to be the type which the establishment (which benefits from high levels of partisan distractions and divisions) finds most threatening and in need of demonization. Nothing is more effective at demonizing something than slapping the Terrorist label onto it.

viernes, 12 de febrero de 2010

Chechenya: Shamil Basayev at War

This is a one-hour program produced in 1996 by a Turkish channel, in which Shamil Basayev (then alive) is interviewed by Mithat Bereket. It has no english translation, so, probably you must keep on images and gestures to decode this. But it's worth the spent time.

Those footages were shot in 1996, when the Chechen guerrillas defeated Yeltsin. Four years later, they were annihilated by the Putin' Red Army and Grozny went rubble.

The field commander of the Chechen guerrillas, Shamil Basayev, that looks as a kind of (Wahabbi) Muslim Che Guevara of the Caucasus, maybe was also the Bin-Laden equivalent for the Russians. As I noted here, part of the "Brzezinsky mujahideens" acting in Afghanistan in the eighties, ten years later were engaged in the Northern Caucasus (i.e., in Russia own).

(well, it's too late. I'm going to sleep and maybe tomorrow I will complete that shit)

lunes, 8 de febrero de 2010

Some Tips on the Caucassian Culture


Even though the Caucasus is a region that has a sort of a pan-Caucasian identity, it remains greatly diverse in terms of ethnics, religion, politics and culture. Despite some common features, Georgia and Georgians are different to Azerbaijan and Azeri, to Chechnya and Chechens, etc. Sometimes, the bordering states and republics differ so much that a trip from one place to another can come as a civilisation shock. Clear-cut distinctions can be noted e.g. between Ingushetia, closely attached to tradition and Islam, and North Ossetia, definitely the most russified and secularised republic in the region. A trip from Vladikavkaz (North Ossetia capital) to Nazran (Ingushetia’s largest city), separated by a mere dozen kilometres, gives an impression of a trip in cultural space. Whatever is considered a norm in Vladikavkaz (e.g. the way people dress), might raise controversy in Ingushetia.
Two natures of the Caucasus

One should also bear in mind that the Caucasus – to cut the long story short – has two natures. There exists a traditional and even traditionalist Caucasus, an exotic region reminding of the times before the Russian conquest. But there is also a modern, russified, sovietised and partly europeanised Caucasus. It might seem contradictory to you, but not for the people who live there. The same person will behave in a different way while visiting their family in a mountainous village and while socialising with their friends in a big city. Generally speaking, ordinary people, villagers behave naturally, the way they really are, and will not pretend to be someone else. Therefore, a man will not conceal that it is his wife who serves the table, while he sits there and drinks tea with guests. People who want to seem European try to ostentatiously dissociate themselves from some Caucasian customs and prove they are no ‘savages’. They make their wives sit by the table and make small talk, although it seems obvious that she feels uncomfortable doing this and it is not her daily routine. In Muslim countries some people ostentatiously drink alcohol and eat pork to prove they are no stick-in-the-mud Muslims. It is particularly clear in case of middle-aged people who were brought up in the Soviet times and formed by the Soviet propaganda. An increasing share of the younger generation doesn’t act like that. In republics like Dagestan, many young people even flaunt their faith and show that they are practicing believers of Islam.

Different ‘Caucases’

Apart from the two natures mentioned, Caucasus has many shades and differences. One may even say that there are different “Caucases”:
• Urban and rural Caucasus (the distinctions between them are greater that in case of European cities and villages, although the bonds between them are tighter) – e.g. cosmopolitan Baku and traditionalist Azerbaijani provinces;
• North and South Caucasus, divided by many distinctions; for example, people in Dagestan do not regard the Azeri as real highlanders and Caucasians. Dagestan inhabitants look down on Azeri’s habit of men greeting by kissing on the cheek or friends holding hands. Quite similarly, North Ossetians look down on their Southern counterparts (whom they call Kudar) and regard them as “georgianised”;
• Christian and Muslim Caucasus; however, there is no simple distinction into e.g. a Christian Georgia and a Muslim Azerbaijan; there are many regions and communities that do not stick to this description, e.g. the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia;
• Religious and secular Caucasus; the deepest divisions and greatest differences can be found in Muslim countries and regions, while Christian states are less internally divided;
• The conflict regions stand out in the Caucasus – wars, violence and waves of refugees have completely overturned the existing social structures and values, altered typical habits and behaviour, and created a number of different pathologies so far unknown in the Caucasus, such as homelessness, beggary, prostitution, orphanhood, etc.

What you have to know about the Caucasus

Taking all of the above in consideration, the best advice is to get acquainted with the region’s culture, tradition and history before travelling there. This is particularly important, as people in the Caucasus, like almost no other region, are absorbed with their history. At the same time, each nation has its own ethnic history, often conflicting with their neighbours’ version of history. Some sort of ‘indoctrination’ can therefore be expected – the Azeri will argue that the Armenians are not a Caucasus nation and vice versa, Chechens will claim that Ossetians and Dagestan nations are ‘traitors’ and ‘renegades’, while the latter will maintain that all Chechens are ‘bandits’ and ‘kidnappers’. In such a case it’s better not to get into a discussion and just change the topic, as you won’t succeed in changing their mind anyway.

Another reason why it’s worth reading something about the region before going there is that a person that knows something about the region’s history is held in great esteem by the locals. Basic knowledge on the region will also allow you to avoid unpleasant surprises, such as closed borders or travel ban that applies to some territories (e.g. Russia’s entire southern border is closed for foreigners, which is not widely known). Sometimes unaware tourists are planning to cross e.g. Turkish-Armenian or Armenian-Azerbaijani borders that have been closed for over 10 years, following the armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

It’s also worth to get acquainted with the current political situation in the Caucasus. This situation is greatly changeable – sudden and dramatic events that are hard to predict in advance, tend to happen there. It is therefore advised to try and be up to date with the current events in the region, so that we do not get taken aback by what we may find when we get there.
The foreigners’ perception

One of the crucial questions we should ask ourselves before going to the Caucasus, is how the region’s inhabitants are going to perceive us. In Yerevan, Tbilisi or Baku a foreigner is no sensation, while it may become one in some mountainous village. People in the Caucasus often find it hard to understand why people would travel so far. So they ask whether we have family in the Caucasus, where we are on a business trip (‘komandirovka’), where is the rest of the group (if we travel on our own or with one more person), etc. If we are working on some NGO projects in the Caucasus, we may get asked about the motives of our involvement. The locals sometimes find it hard to understand that we want to do something disinterestedly of for free or simply because we take interest in the Caucasus.

While in the region, we must be ready to answer numerous personal questions, such as whether we are married and whether we have children (and if we don’t – why not). We may also hear comments that we should get married as soon as possible; people would even volunteer to find a ‘perfect candidate’ for us straight away. They would also ask how much we earn, where we live, what nationality we are and what is our travel destination. These people do not ask questions because they are rude or meddlesome, but because they need to somehow ‘classify’ us according to their way of thinking, and ‘translate’ us through the notions they use. They need to know who we are, where we come from, and what we came for to be able to relate to us and open up. In the Western culture this sort of behaviour is not customary, as someone’s private life, nationality, confession, and marital status are considered to be private. Things are completely different in the Caucasus. So let’s try to be open and in return these people will open, too.

To see the Caucasus, it’s enough to go to Yerevan, Baku or Tbilisi, to go sightseeing as advised in the guidebook and to walk in the mountains. However, to ‘feel’ the Caucasus, to try and understand it, you must get rid of an always-in-a-hurry-tourist approach and the desire to see as much as possible during the two-week vacation. It is worth to succumb to the slower pace of the Caucasus people’s life. It’s worth to linger in one place, because this is when we will see most. The longer we stay in one place, in one village, staying at one family, the more our hosts will open up to us. Neither should you protest if you feel ‘trapped’ by someone’s hospitability. For example, you find yourself in some village and would like to walk around and take some pictures. Instead, you are seated by the table, and endless courses and beverages keep arriving. Subsequent neighbours and family members keep coming around, everyone wants to see you, and people keep asking the same questions. You have to understand that this is what the Caucasus is about. Take your time, as you will have plenty of time to see other things…

The family is the greatest value for people in the Caucasus, and relatives are the ones they can always rely on. Cultivation of family ties is therefore very important. However, a close family in the Caucasus means something completely different than in Europe. A close relative may be e.g. someone’s grandfather’s brother or the grandfather’s brother’s granddaughter (in the Caucasus she would be called a ‘troyurodnaya sestra’ – a half-cousin or second cousin). Numerous, multi-generation families are a rule in the Caucasus.

However, the family relationships in many Caucasus regions are quite peculiar. For example, in traditional Abkhazian communities in-laws never speak to their daughter-in-law, in Ingushetia a son-in-law may only turn up in his in-laws’ house one year after the marriage, and in Chechnya a father must never show his affection for his own children in front of other people. In all Caucasus communities, the elders enjoy great respect, regardless of their sex. Younger family members attend to them, fulfil their wishes and ask them for advice. The young often refrain from drinking alcohol and smoking in front of the elders. Among Chechens, respect for elders (not just seniors, but any people who are older than you) is probably the greatest. A younger person should stand up when an elder enters the room and only sit down, when the elder allows them to. The young ones are not allowed to speak without the elders’ consent.

Respect for parents is also very important; the parents’ will must not be opposed, especially in matters such as marriage (marriages are still being arranged, even in the cities and even among educated people). One also needs their father’s consent to start an education or a job, to leave one’s native village, etc. According to the tradition (especially in the North Caucasus, where it is deeply rooted), the eldest son should live with his parents and take care of them as long as they live. Obligations to one’s parents and the necessity to take their opinion into account are often quite burdensome, but increasingly more often it is the parents who give their children a free hand in many respects.

Children are a ‘gem’ of each family in the Caucasus. As a rule, families have many children, whom they greatly love and respect. Still, a child is a part of a hierarchical family structure, so that it knows its place and is aware that there is children’s world and adult world, and the latter has more rights and privileges. It can be seen very vividly while visiting a Caucasus home. In European families, a child (especially, a small one) is always the centre of attention, which is often quite tiring for the guests. Things are different in a Caucasus family – children usually do not participate in the elders’ gatherings, leave the room when guests arrive (if they are big enough to do that), and when too little, they are being discreetly taken care of by their mothers, so that the guests do not get absorbed.


A Caucasian home is no castle. Quite the opposite, the more frequently the guests arrive and the longer they stay, the more honoured the hosts feel. For example, in Chechnya it is right for the host to ask the guest what he came for and how long he is going to stay only on the third day after the latter’s arrival (even if it is an unexpected guest). In the Caucasus, a guest is held in great esteem and is THE most important person in the house. Therefore the hosts would say ‘feel like a guest’ rather than ‘feel at home’. In many traditionalistic houses, there is a special room for guests (the so-called kunak chamber), the best and nicest room in the house. It is the host’s duty to fulfil the guest’s wishes, to amuse him and provide entertainment and attractions. So, don’t be too modest and use your ‘privileges’, as receiving guests and amusing them is something natural for the Caucasus inhabitants.

While staying at a Caucasian home you should keep several things in mind. You absolutely must take your shoes off, even if you enter a house for just a moment. Sometimes the hosts would ask you not to do this (especially in modern buildings in big cities), although it happens very rarely. Gifts are very welcome, and at the same time they don’t have to be expensive and can be purely symbolic. It may happen that the host will refuse to accept it thrice, which is a kind of a ritual and does not mean that he does not want the gift. A proper thing to do is also ask courtesy questions about the hosts’ and their family’s health, etc. This is particularly significant in Chechnya and Ingushetia, where it has become a custom.

A feast at the table would usually take a long time. Except for religious Muslim houses, we might expect a lot of alcohol on the table. However, unlike in Russia or Ukraine, the hosts hardly ever force you to drink (or drink excessively). A refusal to drink is usually accepted with understanding. It is in fact approved of when a woman refuses to drink or takes just a sip. A key element of drinking is raising a toast, especially in Georgia and Armenia. A tourist would not be forced to propose a toast; although you should try to do it as such a gesture would be very welcome. Before hitting the road, you can prepare a few ‘ready-made’ toasts, and they don’t have to be particularly sophisticated – the really sophisticated ones are a rarity even in the Caucasus.

When you’re a guest in a place, where a foreigner is still a rarity, you should remember that the Caucasus locals enjoy receiving guests and treat it as a great attraction and sometimes even a privilege. A person gains great prestige if a foreigner happens to participate in his son’s or daughter’s wedding or some other ceremony. As a rule, the foreigner becomes a guest of honour and is expected to deliver a speech at such a ceremony. It also happens that the family who hosts a tourist wants to boast such a special guest in front of their neighbours, relatives or friends, and therefore the news about your arrival would be spread very widely.

When you’re a guest at somebody’s place, you’d better forget about ‘freedom’ or spending money. The host will ‘escort’ you for the whole time, and if he can’t, he will ask his son, brother or some other relative or even a neighbour. If you mention that you feel like walking around the village, it will be understood that you want to be shown around. You’d better not object to that, as this might be offensive to the host.

Having said that, you may not get an equally warm reception all over the Caucasus. There are more and more tourist places where the stay is paid for, even in the highlanders’ houses – it is getting common in many regions of Georgia and Azerbaijan (e.g. in very popular Western tourists’ destination – Khinalug village) and in the Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkess republics in the North Caucasus.

If you are going to a place where there is no lodging house, you’d better talk to the head of the local administration (Russian: glava administratsii) or a headmaster. These are usually the people who have been around, talk better Russian, etc. They would either put you up for the night or find some place to stay. While travelling to very traditionalistic regions, such as upper Dagestan, you should first go to a place called godekan – a central meeting place of a town or a village, usually situated in the middle of the place. At any time you will find there elderly men called Aqsaqals, who form an informal community council (Russian: sovet stareyshin). A proper thing to do is to greet these men, introduce yourself, talk for a while and ask whether you can stay at the village. However, women should not shake hands with them and talk to them first, as it is considered improper. Another inappropriate thing to do is to not greet the people we pass by while walking.


The food in the Caucasus is usually diverse; everyone can find something for themselves. In Muslim countries or regions pork is eaten extremely rarely, although we can come across people who do that. However, vegetarians may find it difficult to find diversified food, as meat dishes prevail in the Caucasian cuisine. It has to be added that people in the Caucasus often do not consider poultry or dolma (meat and rice-stuffed grape leaves) to be meat. Having said that, Caucasian cuisine offers a wide selection of cheese, and vegetables and fruits in the summer. However, coffee fiends must keep in mind that coffee is hard to find in Azerbaijan’s restaurants and bars. Coffee is hardly ever drunk in mountainous villages, whereas tea is used in excess (although it is often herb tea, made from herbs picked in the mountains). All kinds of alcohols are of course quite common, especially in Georgia, Armenia and some North Caucasus republics. People drink wine, cognac, beer and vodka (including the famous Georgian grape vodka chacha). However, you will find increasingly many people, especially young ones, in Azerbaijan and Muslim North Caucasus republics, who do not drink at all. There are villages in the North Caucasus (such as Gubden in Dagestan), where you find no alcohol whatsoever for religious reasons. Many Caucasian Muslims (especially in Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia) also observe a fast during Ramadan.


While travelling to the Caucasus, you don’t need to take particular clothing with yourself. However, you must observe a couple of rules. You must mind the gap between the city and the country. In big cities people usually dress in the European manner, while in the mountains they have a more traditional dress code. Men should avoid wearing shorts, especially in the country, while women should not dress too extravagantly and explicitly. Even though usually people would not comment on your clothes, you’d better avoid the mentioned way of dressing to show your respect for their customs. Also, in regions inhabited by Muslims you should definitely avoid exposing your underwear while your laundry gets dry, as it is regarded obscene.

You should also remember that there are very traditionalistic, even fundamentalist villages in the Caucasus, especially in Dagestan. In such places even a woman who is wearing trousers may get rebuked for ‘indecent conduct’. It’s also worth taking a headscarf that should be put on in mosques. Wearing a headscarf in the mountainous regions, albeit voluntary, would be approved of by the locals as a sign of respect for their customs and traditions. Generally, when you’re in the Caucasus, try to avoid dressing in a ‘Western’, tourist kind of manner – by doing this you are likely to attract the attention of those whom you’d better avoid, such as thieves.

Women in the Caucasus. Man-woman relations

The Caucasus is a region where we can still come across sharp distinctions into male and female social roles. Two separate worlds – male and female one – exist. Representatives of the two sexes rarely spend spare time together (if they’re not related). Men get together within their circle, while women meet within their circle. Men and women usually get together at family occasions, although men usually sit separated from women. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, especially in big cities and in Georgia & Armenia. It seems, though, that the exceptions only prove the rule.

There is also a clear division of roles within a family: a man earns the living and a woman keeps the house, cooks & cleans. In mountainous villages this division is particularly distinct. When guests turn up, it is the man who talks to them, while a woman serves the table. Obviously, man-woman divisions do not concern foreigners; a female tourist is first of all a guest.

Should a woman decide to travel the Caucasus alone, she should exercise great caution, as this might turn out risky, especially in Georgia. A woman on her own can find herself being picked up persistently. There are several reasons for that. In the Caucasus, a woman usually ‘belongs’ to someone. She is a wife, daughter, cousin, sister of a specific man. She is kind of ‘attached’ to the man, which also means that she is under his protection. Therefore a possible ‘beau’ has to take into account that should something happen, he will have to deal with that man sooner or later. Caucasian men reason as follows: if a woman does not ‘belong’ to anyone, and is not attached to any man, it means that she can mine. In such a case she can be easily accosted, as there is no one to defend her. However, if a woman travels with her husband, boyfriend or friend, she has to keep in mind that in some situations she might be completely ignored and looked through. A Caucasian man will talk first of all to a male tourist.

A man travelling across the Caucasus alone will almost certainly get offers to ‘have fun’ with local ladies of loose conduct. A refusal often causes great surprise.

Couples who travel the Caucasus should in turn avoid showing their affection to each other, as it is considered indecent and can be extremely embarrassing to locals, especially in Muslim regions. On the other hand, we should not express our surprise that e.g. in Azerbaijan men greet by kissing on the cheek and hold hands when walking. You can also come across such customs in Armenia (though they are not so common), although certainly not in the North Caucasus, where this would be unacceptable.

Relations with the authorities

The relations with the authorities (be it police or office workers) is the most problematic thing while travelling across the Caucasus. It is a problem first of all in the North Caucasus, mainly in its eastern part (Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan). This is the least stable part of the region, flooded with the military and police due to the conflict in Chechnya and the activity of Islamists. You should therefore expect numerous document checks, examination of your luggage, etc. The whole region is intersected by a network of checkpoints, while the borders between the republics actually remind state borders. Entry into some territories may be very difficult. This mainly applies to Chechnya; according to the law, a foreigner can enter the republic only with a special permit. The authorities’ consent (in this case, the consent of the Federal Security Service, the FSB) is also required to enter all bordering territories. In case of the regions that are popular tourist destinations, it is not difficult to obtain a permit – special tourist agencies will take care of that. They will also help you obtain the temporary registration (Russian: registratsiya) – a tourist needs such a registration if he stays longer than 3 days.

Checks are common during longer journeys; for local police they are often an opportunity to extort bribes from people, especially foreign tourists, who are considered a ‘tasty bit’. Very often policemen would make up alleged offences to force the tourists to pay. Nevertheless, you should avoid paying bribes, which is not that hard. There are ways of dealing with the police’s importunity, the most effective being plain patience. If you are consistent in refusing to pay bribes, at the same time keeping your cool and letting them know you are aware of your rights, they will give up after a while. You should not worry that a bus or a marshrutka (a small bus) will leave without you. Passengers are united by a kind of a team spirit; the driver will also wait until all passengers will be given their documents back and allowed to go. You should avoid kicking up a fuss, shouting, being rude, as it can only worsen the situation. Another way is to pretend you don’t understand Russia or to appeal to their Caucasian hospitality. Even if you have not attended to formalities (e.g. you don’t have the registration), you can try to refer to your unawareness or try to arouse their pity. Only in extreme cases (exceptional importunity or rudeness of the uniformed) you can demand to call the Ambassador of your state. You should also bear in mind that the policemen or the military often stop foreigners simply because they’re curious, as they don’t meet foreigners too often and want to talk to them.

In the South Caucasus the aforementioned problems happen much less frequently. In this region you should avoid travelling to the frozen-conflict areas – the Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as it may turn to be quite risky (especially in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia). While on the mentioned territories, you are not under protection of your diplomatic agencies, as they cannot act freely there.

In official contacts with the authorities (e.g. while working on some NGO projects) proper and formal clothing should be observed (especially in Azerbaijan and Armenia), as it is treated as a sign of respect towards the authorities. The representatives of local authorities must feel that they are important, and that the guests respect their position and status. When you are working on a project in some region, a courtesy visit to the local authorities can help you in accelerating the works.


Travelling across the Caucasus is not very problematic. The most convenient way to get around is to take a marshrutka, a small bus that can take you to practically any place in the Caucasus. Marshrutkas are also a basic means of transport in larger cities. At the same time they are the safest one, much better than taxis. All locals use them, and that’s where you can get advice on how to get to a particular place or where to stay for the night. You can trust the marshrutka drivers, who have no vested interest in cheating or misleading you. Another convenient albeit slower way to get around is to take a bus (buses usually run between cities and larger villages).

You can reach the Caucasus by train – there are trains running to the region from Moscow, Rostov-on-Don, Volgograd, Astrakhan or Kyiv in Ukraine, among other cities. The major train connections in the region are Moscow-Makhachkala (it runs further to Baku, although you have to bear in mind that foreigners cannot cross the Russian-Azerbaijani border), Moscow – Vladikavkaz, Moscow – Adler, Moscow – Kislovodsk, Rostov-on-Don – Vladikavkaz, Moscow – Nazran, Adler – Vladikavkaz and other. You can also get to Grozny and Gudermes by train, although you will need a special permit. In the South Caucasus, the train network is not expanded. The major train connections are: Yerevan – Tbilisi, Tbilisi – Baku, Tbilisi – Zugdidi, Tbilisi – Batumi, and Baku – Astara. The train that run in the region are usually slow and rather dirty (except for the Tbilisi-Baku connection). The ticket prices are affordable, although you may find it hard to buy a ticket on the day of departure (especially in the North Caucasus), so you’d better do it in advance.

You can also get to the Caucasus by plane. There are direct plane connections to Baku, Yerevan and Tbilisi from Frankfurt, Vienna, Istanbul, Prague, Minsk and Moscow. Recently budget Air Baltica airlines have offered flights to the Caucasus via Riga, Latvia, which is currently the cheapest way to fly there. If you want to fly to the North Caucasus, you can take a plane from Moscow and St Petersburg. There are many large airports in the North Caucasus, including Mineralnye Vody, Makhachkala, Nazran, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, Nalchik, Cherkesk, Sochi, Krasnodar, and Stavropol.

You can also travel by taxis or rented cars, although that would not be advisable: local drivers often take advantage of foreigners, who are not familiar with local prices and situation. Moreover, in the North Caucasus taxis and private vehicles are more often checked by the police. Having said that, taxi drivers may be an excellent source of information. Another good source of information are bazaars. You can have some problems with exchanging money in the North Caucasus (in places such as Makhachkala, Kislovodsk, Pyatigorsk), but in larger cities you will find many cash machines. If we decide to take currencies, it is much better to take US dollars than Euros.

The easiest way to communicate is to speak Russian, although the command of Russian is not equally good everyone (it might be a problem in the South Caucasus, especially in the country). The ones who may have problems with Russian are the young people, who were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the elderly or women in remote villages. The knowledge of English is still an exception, although it is becoming more common among young people (especially in Georgia). You should also bear in mind that Armenia and Georgia have their own alphabets, completely different to the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Azerbaijan uses the Latin alphabet, while the North Caucasus for obvious reasons sticks to the Cyrillic one.

In big cities you may find it hard to find a proper place to stay the night. Hotels are usually expensive, and people rarely invite you to stay at their place. There are also state-owned hotels in the North Caucasus that do not admit foreigners. On the other hand, in popular tourist locations (Georgia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkess republic) there shouldn’t be any problems with finding a place to stay. You will find rooms for rent there as well as the tourist centres (Russian: turbaza). In some regions (such as the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia and in the south of Azerbaijan) there are agritourist farms (see e.g. www.pankisi.org). In places that are not frequented by tourists, the locals often offer free stay at their house. However, you should not take advantage of it too much, as the people in that region are usually very poor.

An interesting thing to see while travelling, especially across Muslim regions, are the so-called sacred sites (ziyarats, pirs) located along the roads. Drivers usually stop by, so that the passengers can pray, get some water and leave some loose change. When passing by cemeteries or temples, the drivers also turn the music down, and some passengers say short prayers. At such moment you should remain silent to show your respect for these people’s faith.

Be yourself

While in the Caucasus, behave naturally, do not pretend to be someone you aren’t or force yourself to conform to the surroundings. People in the Caucasus respect those who are proud of their own culture, religion, their country and who have their own firm beliefs and opinions.

A most crucial trait, which you will not be taught by any savoir-vivre handbook, is tact. If you watch the people you meet in the Caucasus with attention, talk to them, take interest in their culture, you will know what is the right thing to do, and what isn’t.

Maciej Falkowski

Translated by Jadwiga Rogoża

jueves, 4 de febrero de 2010

The Moscow Seven Sisters

Seven buildings of Moscow, built from 1947 and 1955 during the Stalin' rule, are worldwide known as 'The Seven Sisters'. They give this particular charm between gothic and baroque that characterizes Moscow.

1. Moscow State University

2. Leningradskaya Hotel

3.Ukrainya Hotel

4.The Kudrinskaya Square Building

5. Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Apartments

6. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs

7. The Red Gates Administrative Building

The Seven Sisters in a Moscow Map

However, (at least) two more buildings in Moscow can be included in the same architectural concept: The Palace o Culture and Science, and the Triumph Palace.

8. Palace of Culture and Science

9. The Triumph Palace (at Warsaw, Poland, as stated by reader Stan Baransky)

Photo credits: Aigars Ievins, English Russia

viernes, 29 de enero de 2010

Particularities of the Saudi House

King Fahd ibn Abdulaziz Al Saud, died in 2005

In case of Saudi Arabia, cradle of the Islam, spiritual center of the Arab and Moslem worlds, and the only State of the world that carries the name of the family that founded it and directs up to today, the political system has been especially rigid. Saud has been from his emergence in the XVIIIth century in the figure of the sheikh Muhammad ibn Saud, the first emir of the Nejd in 1735, the leaders of the wahhabism, a fundamentalist suni sect that takes his name after his founder, Muhammad ibn Abd to the-Wahhab, died in 1787.

The wahhabism rebelled against the decadent and secularized piety of the Ottoman Turks, custodians of that time of the Holy Mosques of Medina and Mecca, with what the religious reform movement acquired from the beginning an important political tint. His orthodoxy lies in the hanbali juridical school most faced towards the Arab thing and the most traditional of the four that bloomed in the abasi caliphate, and which was founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, deceased in 850.

The hanbali school prescribes that the sharia or Islamic law comes exclusively from the Koran and from the sunna or six compendia of hadices (named like hadith, there are texts compilations of the facts and words of the Prophet, which shape the tradition and complement the Koran) attributed to Mahoma and his first followers. Opposite to any rationalist innovation, the hanbalism pushes back most of the hadices and the whole jurisprudence (fiqh) of not Koranic or Muslim emanation, as the juridical reasonings endorsed by the consensus of the believers (ichma). Also, it prohibits any declaration of popular devotion based on the religious images, for considering it to be an idolater.

In Arabia, this creed, with his accented strictness and puritanism, impregnated with conservatism the State organized like an absolute monarchy, and to the society, fist-iron submitted to the prescriptions of the sharia, sometimes draconian, on such aspects like the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, the role of the woman and the punishment of the crimes. They adopted the penal code of the hadd, which comprises the amputation of a hand for theft, the flagellation up to the death for drinking alcohol, the stone beating for adultery or the beheading for the most serious affronts. In addition, the State created the Committee to Encourage the Virtue and to Prevent the Sin, and a religious police, the Mutawwain invested of full powers to watch and to punish at once and on the area any Koranic deviation in the conduct of the citizen on foot.

To the eyes of westerns, allien to the the cultural, moral and religious particularities of a proud community of his past of free and warlike men, this system presents the whole aspect of an intolerant medieval feudalism straight carried to the XXIst century, which exercises an arbitrary control on the citizens and which protects rude human rights violations. The case is that the Saudi regime has rested on three domestic props: approximately 4.000 princes who nourish the principal branch of Saud's house, the Faysal (for being progeny for line patrilineal of the grandfather of ibn Saud, Faysal ibn Turki, without forgetting that from Saud's trunk there arose other branches that today comprises between 30.000 and 40.000 people), the Bedouin tribes and the sheikhs, and the Armed forces, of all who he insured himself his allegiance.

After the fabulous enrichment that produced in a nomads' society of the desert the oil discovered and its development at the end of the thirties of the XXth century, Saud watched with special zeal that the massive money inflow was not bringing with it Occident cultural fashions and political ideas, like parlamentarism, the political parties and the laicism of the State, for not speaking about the lightest leftist or socializing whim.

The result has been the unusual symbiosis of the most advanced features of the western technology with the ancestral customs of the inhabitants of the Arabic peninsula. The income for the oil and the tourism related to the peregrination to Mecca or hadj (one of five Koranic obligations, that any Moslem must do at least once in his life) made possible an extremely generous system of social protection that for years lulled the democratic aspirations.

(CIDOB, translated (or so) from the spanish version)

martes, 5 de enero de 2010

Vanity Fair and Goldman Sachs, the Greedy Sons of Mother Theresa

Lloyd Blankfein, current Goldman Sachs CEO

Henry "Hank" Paulson, Former Goldman Sachs CEO and Current Treasure Secretary,
the fox caring for the hens

I was ashamed reading this article in Vanity Fair. What a drudges, worried and angelical men! A little more of praises and GS would look like the direct progeny from Mother Theresa. Is this a face wash-down suggested by the PR? My heartstrings got touched, VF! Give me an handkerchief and dry my tears, please!

Such PR operation carried out by VF might be related with this or that? If still we cast some doubt that it is a PR operation destined to soften criticism and wash the face of GS, please read here the article of the NYT titled 'Goldman Sachs Weighs Requirement for Charity'.